- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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Nov. 2

The Gadsden Times on a report that lists Alabama among states labeled as “Tobacco Nation:”

We often comment on statistics that put Alabama in a bad light, for one reason or another, compared to its fellow states.

It’s not because we want to dwell on the negative. It’s just difficult not to swing a driver at something that sits so invitingly on a tee.

Witness a report released last month by Truth Initiative, which describes itself as “America’s largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past.” Its efforts are primarily aimed at youth and young adults.

The report labels 12 U.S. states - all contiguous, spanning the Upper Midwest to the Deep South - as “Tobacco Nation.”

Alabama is on that list, joining Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia. It’s not something to be proud of.

The numbers, according to Truth Initiative:

-More than 66 million people live in “Tobacco Nation,” about a fifth of the U.S. population.

-Twenty-two percent of adults (18 and older) in “Tobacco Nation” are smokers, compared to the national average of 15 percent.

-Twelve percent of young people ages 12-17 in “Tobacco Nation” are smokers, compared to 9 percent in the other 38 states.

-People in “Tobacco Nation” annually smoke 64 percent more cigarettes per capita than residents of the other 38 states.

-“Tobacco Nation,” if considered as a separate nation, would rank No. 4 on the planet in youth smoking (behind Indonesia, Ukraine and Mexico) and No. 5 in adult smoking (behind Indonesia, Ukraine, China and the Philippines).

-“Tobacco Nation” has higher rates of overall cancer incidence and mortality, lung cancer incidence and mortality, heart disease mortality, chronic lower respiratory disease mortality and percentage of adults with COPD than the rest of the U.S.

-“Tobacco Nation” trails the rest of the U.S. in median household income, percentage of residents below poverty level, percentage of residents with a college degree or higher, access to primary care physicians and public health spending.

-Residents of “Tobacco Nation” drink more excessively, report more frequent physical and mental distress and are less active than the rest of the U.S.

According to other data from health organizations:

-Alabama has the 11th highest rate of smoking in the U.S. (Roughly a fifth of its adults smoke.)

-More than 8,600 deaths in the state each year can be linked to smoking.

-The economic toll on the state from smoking, in health-care costs and lost productivity, exceeds $4 billion.

None of this is new. We’ve known officially for 53 years - even longer unofficially - that smoking is bad, that it kills people and that it costs taxpayers money. (Imagine if that $4 billion could be directed back into Alabama’s economy.)

We know how addictive smoking is, how difficult a habit it is to kick. We also know how stubborn people get when you try to force them not to do something.

At the same time, we’ve seen how the overall smoking rate has declined drastically in the U.S., courtesy of anti-tobacco efforts and governmental attempts to compel behavioral changes by banning smoking in restaurants, bars and the like, or ramping up tobacco taxes.

“Tobacco Nation” is a troubling outlier, however. Perhaps this report will grab the attention of those 12 states and fuel an increased anti-smoking push there.

Why not describe it as a “war?” That noun tends to make people get serious about a problem. Given the human and monetary toll at stake, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration, either.

Online: http://www.gadsdentimes.com/

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Nov. 5

The Decatur Daily on transparency and trust between state officials and citizens:

For good reason, Alabamians have never idolized the officials who run their state and local governments. Citizens of this state have no illusions that their elected officials are uniquely competent or wise, and are well aware that officials often have tried to conceal facts to hide mistakes, incompetence and occasionally corruption.

The state’s Public Records Act is intended to reflect this skepticism of officialdom. It begins powerfully and wisely, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state.” It’s a law that sends a message to those we trust to run our government: We are paying attention. You are not above the law, and you will be held accountable for your decisions.

On July 7, a Priceville police officer shot and killed 15-year-old Gabriel Sage Barnes. The shooting took place in Huntsville after a 30-mile pursuit that reached speeds of up to 100 mph.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency investigated the death. After consultation with ALEA investigators, the Madison County District Attorney’s Office decided no charges would be filed against the officer and the matter would not be presented to a grand jury. The killing, they said, was justified.

The ALEA rejected a request for documents related to the closed investigation. Section 12-21-3.1, an exception to the Public Records Act, “specifically provides that law enforcement investigative reports are not public records and are protected from disclosure,” an assistant attorney general wrote Tuesday.

This same statute popped up Thursday in two other fatal shootings, when the Morgan County District Attorney’s office declined to produce investigatory material related to a pair of homicides.

On Jan. 19, Bruce Rashad Moody was shot and killed at a Decatur residence. The Morgan County DA’s office presented the case to a grand jury, which did not issue an indictment. The investigation came to an end.

On May 9, Nicholas Elliott Cazier was shot and killed at Eagle One Metal Roofing on U.S. 31 in Decatur. The grand jury declined to return an indictment. The investigation ended.

In all three fatalities, the skeletal facts released to the public suggest the decision not to prosecute made sense. The teen killed by a Priceville police officer was backing his vehicle into the officer, according to a statement to the news media. Moody broke into a house and was wielding a box cutter when a resident shot him, according to a statement to the news media. Cazier pulled a gun during a heated argument before he was killed, according to a statement to the news media.

Trust us, officials said. You don’t need the investigatory details.

The statute upon which the officials rely in concealing the information from the public, Section 12-21-3.1, states that investigative reports are not public records. It’s a sensible law when applied correctly. When an investigation is ongoing or a prosecution is imminent, publication of investigatory material would undermine the public’s interest in convicting the offender.

That justification disappears, however, when the investigation ends. There is no prosecution that will be disrupted if the public gains a better understanding, through investigatory reports, of why no charges were filed against the killers of Barnes, Moody and Cazier.

The best guess is that officials made the right call in declining to prosecute the shooters. But that guess depends entirely on the scraps of information officials deigned to release to the public.

It’s a paternalistic view of government that Alabamians have long rejected. The public bestows trust on officials when they deserve it. The end of transparency is the beginning of mistrust.

Online: http://www.decaturdaily.com/

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Nov. 3

TimesDaily of Florence on a federal judge blocking two 2016 state laws restricting abortion:

Some Alabama politicians, like Don Quixote, are blessing their good fortune.

“‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished,’ ” Quixote said in the novel by Miguel de Cervantes. ” ‘Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. .

“‘Take care, sir,’ cried Sancho. ‘Those over there are not giants but windmills. .’ “

The windmill that is under constant and futile attack by many state politicians is the U.S. Constitution, and their good fortune is measured by the popularity it brings them.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson blocked two 2016 state laws restricting abortion. One of the laws banned abortion clinics within 2,000 feet of K-8 public schools, effectively closing clinics in the state. The other barred the second-trimester procedure known as dilation and evacuation.

The underlying frustration expressed by lawmakers is that an appointed judge can overturn laws passed by an elected Legislature. The latest strategy, apparently designed to circumvent federal courts, is to try to convince the governor to pass “Proposal 16,” an executive order banning abortion.

The politicians’ frustration with a district judge is misplaced. His job is to interpret the law, and the primary source of the law in abortion cases is the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. If Thompson misinterpreted the constitutional protections afforded women by the Constitution, his decision will be reversed. Given that federal judges in other states have ruled as he did and that past Supreme Court rulings support his decision, his decision likely will be affirmed.

In a pure democracy, complaints that Thompson’s ruling ignored the will of the people would be compelling. Individual rights - whether to have an abortion, to engage in political speech or to own a gun - would be subject to the whim of the majority in a democracy not limited by the individual rights set forth in the Constitution.

In arguing against such a government, Thomas Jefferson warned a pure democracy “is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.” Another Founding Father, James Madison, warned of the “tyranny of the majority.”

In an effort to address these concerns, the nation in 1791 ratified the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Seventy-seven years later, it adopted the 14th Amendment, which applied to the states the same limitations on the power of government to infringe on individual liberties.

Abortion is a horribly difficult issue, legally as well as morally, in part because biology prevents the law from providing complete protection of individual liberties for both a mother and an unborn child.

The extreme views would be either that the rights of the fetus trump the rights of the mother beginning at conception, or that no rights attach to the fetus until birth. Instead of adopting either of these extremes, the Supreme Court has sought to find a balance between the competing rights that focuses on the viability of the fetus outside the mother’s womb.

The Alabama Legislature’s refusal to acknowledge that it is subject to the Constitution on the issue has been costly. Lawmakers have wasted millions of dollars tilting at this windmill, money that could have been spent improving the lives of children that are born, or of mothers whose economic plight is so bleak they see abortion as the only option.

Online: http://www.timesdaily.com/


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